American Legion: Rowan regional preview

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 6, 2009

By Mike London
An undefeated Crest basketball team came to Catawba in 1971 boasting David Thompson, one of the nation’s top prep stars.
The 6-foot-4 Thompson had a sweet jumper and played a foot above the rim. In a WNCHSAA semifinal, North Rowan tried a box-and-one. The Cavaliers limited Thompson to 25 points, but his teammates shot layups all night. Crest won 65-51.
After observing the Crest-North game, Boyden coach Bob Pharr stuck with his bread and butter ó a 1-3-1 matchup zone ó in the championship game. Thompson was held to three field goals, and Boyden won 41-33.
The moral of the story: Really good teams don’t change who they are and what they do, no matter who the opposition is. That’s a lesson not lost on Rowan County American Legion baseball coach Jim Gantt.
“We’re gonna do what we do in the Southeast Regional,” Gantt said.
“We know our pitchers aren’t gonna strike many people out, so they’ll try to hit spots and pitch to our defense. That’s why we’ve taken a million groundballs and a million flyballs this year.”
The North Carolina champions won’t study scouting reports or worry about who they’re playing. They’ll focus on continuing to do what they’ve been doing well.
Rowan opens the tournament tonight at approximately 8:30 p.m. against Sumter, S.C., the host team. Rowan plays the second game of an evening session that begins at 5 p.m., so it’s hard to say exactly when the first pitch will be thrown.
Don’t look for Gantt’s lineup to change. Don’t expect changes in the all right-handed pitching rotation of Corbin Shive, Billy Veal, Forrest Buchanan, Nick Smith and Preston Troutman.
The defensive formula all season has been to get six or seven innings from the starting pitcher, then mix and match with the bullpen. The offensive formula has been to be patient and wait for someone to mash a three-run homer.
“Guys have done an excellent job of staying within themselves and not trying to do too much,” Gantt said. “Guys haven’t gotten too big with their swings. Coach (Steven) Sawyer has done a great job of helping each guy understand what his approach should be.”
Noah Holmes, Trey Holmes, Russell Michalec and Zach Smith are hitting better than .400. Trey Holmes, the first baseman and state tournament MVP, is enjoying a monumental season. He’s hitting .470 with 14 homers, 21 doubles, 72 runs scored and 62 RBIs while mostly batting leadoff.
“Trey’s stayed constantly hot,” Gantt said. “You’re almost surprised now if he doesn’t get a big hit or make a big defensive play. He’s an instinctive baseball player, and his last few weeks have been a career for a lot of people.”
Don’t look for Rowan (32-7) to start hit-and-running, stealing or bunting. It doesn’t make sense to give up outs with sacrifices or risk outs on the bases when so many guys in the lineup can go deep. Rowan’s 61 homers are a program record.Gantt expected this to be a good team with a good nucleus of returners and key additions such as Shive ó 10 homers at the plate and 6-0 on the mound ó and center fielder Jon Crucitti. Shive played showcase ball last season, and Crucitti played for Mooresville.
“We’ve also had some pleasant surprises,” Gantt said. “We expected Buchanan to pitch for us, but we didn’t expect him to be 8-0.”
The pitching in the state tournament was the best Rowan has faced. Batting averages tumbled, but Rowan pitchers took up the slack.
Veal’s eight-inning start against Cherryville and his 32/3 innings of relief against Shelby in the championship game were performances as fine as any Rowan’s gotten on the mound all summer.
“You couldn’t argue with Trey as tournament MVP, but Billy could’ve been co-MVP,” Gantt said. “When Billy relieved that last game, everyone acted like they knew it was over. Our pitching was the difference. Most teams down there had four or five arms. We had eight or nine.
“That last day, we felt like the longer it lasted the more it was to our advantage. Shelby had to bring guys back that had just pitched. We still had a few options. We were so much better off it felt like cheating.”
Rowan pitching coach Travis McSweeney pushed his staff hard early in the season. Pitchers reported 30 minutes before the hitters for running and workouts. That extra conditioning paid off down the stretch and helped Rowan notch its seventh state title.
Sumter owns 12 state championships in South Carolina, including three in the past five seasons, so it will be dangerous. Host teams can win regionals ó Rowan won one at Newman Park in 1996.
This is Rowan’s first trip to a regional since 2002, when the format was different. It’s standard double-elimination this time. Rowan lost only once in the regional in 2002, a season in which it finished 43-2. AAU-style pool play was used, and that single loss came at the worst possible time.
Rowan left at noon Wednesday for Sumter’s Riley Park, which is about three hours away. Tuscaloosa (Ala.) has the most imposing record in the field at 47-6, but it’s tough to name a favorite.
“Half the guys on the East Coast who get drafted come from Florida and Georgia, so you know they’ll be good,” Gantt said. “But it’s hard to say how your state matches up with another area.”
Sumter coach Wallie Jones does know something of Rowan’s reputation.
“They play good baseball in North Carolina,” he said. “It’s a higher level than we play in South Carolina overall. I’m very familiar with Cherryville and the people they wound up beating, so I know they have a good ballclub. Shelby, they beat them and they had a good ballclub, so I know they’re a quality team.”
NOTES: Jones sounds exactly like Gantt when it comes to Legion ball as opposed to the showcase variety. “Legion ball helped me get a scholarship to play, and I’m a staunch supporter of it,” Jones said. “It’s the only thing left kids don’t have to pay to play ball. It’s not somebody trying to make money off them and trying to haul them all over the country and tell them they’re great when they’re not. The kids want to win for the community. They care whether you win or lose. If you have a hodge-podge bunch of players, they just want to get two hits and be seen and sit down and if they lose no big deal. Your guys, when they lose, half of them are probably going to cry, and mine are too because they care.” … The regional winner travels to Fargo, N.D. … Rowan will play Alabama or Florida on Friday.
Bret Strelow contributed to this story.